It was March in Spain and it was cold as hell and I needed soup.
Good soup. Hearty soup. I’d just driven from Barcelona to the capital and my nerves were shot. I was hungry for soup from someone’s mother, soup from someone’s home kitchen, comfort soup with hunks of potato, with bones, with poorly diced onions, with a skim of crimson shining across the top, served in a bowl with a chip in the rim like some ancient grandma’s missing front tooth as she hugs me and pulls me in from the cold and gives me soup improved slowly over generations of careful tweaks and improvements until it tastes like a good night’s sleep in a clean room with a warm fire.
My family had ridden in the car with me across the Spanish countryside, dutifully leading a train of screaming Spaniards in our wake on the two-lane roads where one cannot pass because the average speed on a curvy two-lane blacktop in Andalusia is 70 million miles an hour. I kept my speedometer pegged just under 85 because I was terrified, so most of Espańa was parked on my rear bumper trying to kill me. I’d run out of proper curse words and was inventing new ones when we arrived in Madrid and my family told me to please, please go away so they could shop in peace. I walked halfway around the Playa Mayor. Then I came to the bright green door of La Torre del Oro through which I glimpsed a giant bull’s head adorning the wall and thought, Finally, I am home.
I ordered a beer and got a cup of warm sopa jamon, which I drained in a single gulp. Might have come out of a can. I have no idea. It was broth and it was hot. I ordered some shrimp, which I ate with a toothpick because tapas. I dined erect at the bar under the watchful gaze of dead steers taking ironic selfies. The barkeeps’ bright green vests lent me comfort as I am a sweater vester from way back and it was good to be with my people. The man behind the counter made a joke and his friend laughed and I laughed, and the stew and the beer warmed my wintery bones. Then they served me rat soup.
One of the grinning Spaniards reached over with a meaningful look, like I get you. This is amazing. He placed a shallow bowl of stewed meat on the counter next to my cerveza. It looked like oxtail soup in miniature. I didn’t care. I was starving to death. I dug in, sucking savory meat off the tiny brittle vertebrae. One piece was larger, maybe the size of a home-grown brussel sprout. As I slurped a jiggling nugget of stewed flesh from its cuplike interior, it flipped over and stared back at me with an empty eye socket. Bowed, yellowed incisors curved backward from a paper-thin skull. A wordless ape knowledge welled up inside me, an automatic hindbrain measurement from the creature’s eye hole to the end of its jaw and the teeth, oh God the teeth. Those were rat teeth. I was eating a rat.
“What the hell is this?” I pointed to the plate full of pest.
“Pobre de popa.”
My Spanish is almost as bad as my Esperanto, so I had to roll these words over in my head for a long time while I was stared at the sepia dentures on my plate. Poor pope? Is that slang for rat? It sounded like it could be slang for rat. If I were going to make up street jargon for a rat, I’d call it a poor pope.
It gets worse. The skull had split. Before I’d turned it over, I’d sluiced some jiggly meat right out of it. Like I was knocking back a raw oyster. I’d slurped a ration of rat’s brains.
I turned to my nearest companions, a delightful couple from Texas.
“Hey, does this–“
“Oh my Gawd, are yallermerican?”
Jesus Hapolid Christ. I signaled the bartender and waved at my rat. I pointed two fingers at Texas, smiling as they complained about how nobody here speaks no English. I paid my bill, said no habla Engles to Her Beehiveness ,then burst into the frigid atmosphere of España.
We’d booked this trip at the last minute. My wife left the arrangements to me, a rarity in our marriage. But she was in the middle of transitioning from one law firm to another and was working 437 hours a day, she had to use her vacay time, or lose it. I had to act fast.
Anything with a beach in a sunny climate where they serve Margaritas out of a bucket was already wall-to-wall spring breakers. Even if I found a room in Cozumel or Playa del Carmen, we wouldn’t be able to sleep from the sound of drunken college freshmen plunging to their deaths from the balconies.
I caught up with my brood. We had lunch at the oldest restaurant in the world, Sobrina d’Botin, a meal I had pined for my entire life. A meal I had hoped to have with my pop. I toasted the ghost of my dead father and enjoyed my roast suckling pig with a bottle of Temperanillo, but my heart wasn’t in it. The faint aftertaste of roasted rodent ruined every forkful. Goddam Torre del Oro — you ruined the meal of a lifetime!
We left. We shivered down Cal de Cuchilleros to catch a cab. My mouth tasted like a small mammal. I was miserable and disappointed and sober.
Then it started snowing.
I’m standing on the cobblestone street in a city older than dirt. Spaniards pass me decked out in their winter finery losing their collective minds. SNOW! In MADRID! Then someone sees me. I’ve got my light jacket folded over my arm, sleeves rolled up, shirt unbuttoned. There, in the open V beneath my porcine neck roll: “Chicago” emblazoned across manboobs. A wide-eyed Spaniard stops to stare at the sky falling down on him, glances over at my T-shirt, and glares. He says “Muchos gracias, Al Capone.”
We napped off the pork in our hotel and cabbed back to the Mercado San Miguel, which is delightful and loud and crowded and warm. I found a cart selling oysters caught that very morning next to a shop selling flutes of Spanish cava. My wife appeared out of thin air with a glass, then my son sauntered up at the same time bearing beer and a plate of cheeses. We spent some time enjoying the multilingual chatter and the convivial vibe and the booze. I planted myself between them, two-fisting bubbly and bivalves until a smile crept warily onto my face.
It had been a good trip.
I drank absinthe with my boy in Café Mirabella in the quarter in Barcelona, the same joint where Dali, Neruda and Hemmingway got hammered. Paint was peeling off the walls. The tables were wobbly. They didn’t have cool absinthe fountains like we’d enjoyed at Dr. Lupins in Paris. They poured pine needle colored liquor over a sugar cube on a fork laid over the rim of a glass with an eight-ounce bottle of lukewarm water with a hole in the cap. We drank ourselves into a hallucination, then went to a classy restaurant where we ordered everything on the menu, spilled our drinks, and I’m not saying we were kicked out but our exit was expediently curated.
We’d had dinner at the Eiffel Tower, every course interrupted by thunderous applause as some idiot took a knee and set his girlfriend’s Facebook feed on fire by proposing. We’d dined at La Petit Canard where, true to its name, every dish was duck. We’d learned expensive escargot is worth the money. We’d dodged professional beggars at Notre Dame.
So I ate a rat1. I mean, when you balance that against everything else, it was small and insignificant. And you know what? Stewed rat brain is tasty. Until I realized I’d dined on a varmint, I was fine with it. Rat was good. And it’s not like it was an accident. It didn’t fall into the soup. It was the main ingredient. Who am I to question the delicacies of another culture? I’m from Alabama; my people eat chitlins.
1 Please note: limited research and a few phone calls to Madrid, while not definitive, have broadened the zoology of my meal at Torre del Oro to include all species in the families of leporidae, sciuridae and hamsters. However, I have been reassured that the habit of Peruvians in turning to the easily farmed Cavia porcellus for inexpensive meat may have migrated to Spain and more than likely I did not eat a rat but instead a common guinea pig, which is still a rodent so I’m not happier, only slightly more informed.
— Bull Garlington
Bull Garlington is an award-winning author and columnist. He writes about destinations, travel, tourism, food and drink for entertainment publications. He writes about analog tools in the digital workplace for Attorney at Work. His books, The Full English and Death by Children, were IndieFab’s non-fiction humor books of the year, 2013 and 2017. Garlington runs a content company, Creative Writer PRO, delivering top-shelf feature length stories for publishers and small businesses. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his two children, his dog Whisky and a cat named Jones.